Friday, March 30, 2018

The Joy of Gaming: Women Game Designers - Tween Game Designers

Women's History Month: 

A Joy of Gaming Tribute to 

Women Game Designers


Every year I run a Tabletop Game Unit in my Literacy class. We focus on the writing and creating process of game design. Components are a print-n-play style production. Students are asked to write a narrative to accompany their game, write a directions booklet, and then create a presentation selling their game. These three things reflect the three major units of writing we do throughout the year. The directions booklet aligns with our informational writing unit. The unit is couched in the Lucy Calkins Writing Curriculum, using the rubrics and other reference information to help support the students’ writing.

From a game design perspective, the students conduct research by playing various types of games. They choose a style of game that appeals to them and then they develop a game using that style. My husband comes in to help them streamline their game concept. This becomes their game booklet. They need the basics of a game, but need to explain the objective, the end game conditions, steps, etc. The booklet also needs to include text-features, such as photos of game setup or explanations of what symbols mean. Overall it’s an amazing unit. Since building confidence enough to do it, I’ve been presenting my unit at GenCon.

What I’ve observed with the unit is the game development style of the girls and boys. As with most things, groups typically end up being Girl/Girl and Boy/Boy. Rarely do I have a team of mixed genders. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen (one group was a budding romance and actually created one of the top games that year), but they are few and far between. 

The boy groups, I’ve noticed, have a tendency to lean more towards one of two game types: cards, cards, and more cards that usually reflect a dueling nature or overly complex board games that start the drawing board ambitious but usually become a mess when they realize how much work that ambitious vision calls for. Don't get me wrong. Some of these games are successful in varying degrees, but it's a sure bet that the 100 deck card games and Munchkin clones are going to be the bottom of the barrel each year. They also mostly include clipart for production with very little custom artwork or graphic design. With some of the groups, there is also often a need to be silly or over-the-top.  (Again, there are always exceptions to this rule. I had a boy group one year have their game professionally printed and they had a massively long and complicated directions book. It was totally Euro, and even though the game still needed work and development, it was nonetheless impressive.)

The girl groups, though, have a tendency to go all out. They invest themselves in every aspect of the game - from the art to the mechanics to the various writing pieces. Some go a bit crazier than others, but year-to-year girls have made some of the best games.  They deliver on a level I never imagined I would get from my kids when I first envisioned the unit.

One duo of girls made a roller-coaster themed puzzle game that, to this day, my husband is obsessed with. He genuinely thinks it could be developed into a professionally publishable game. Sure, some of the ideas utilized in it came from his input, but what amazed him at the time was how they took his advice and criticism and ran with it and executed it with such care. Sadly, many of the students leave their games with me, never to claim them again. I have a pile of well-made, well-designed games that I show off every year to each incoming class, but it breaks my heart to know that these were just a pffft in the wind to them. I wish I understood what it was about girls in middle school that pushes them away from things like this. I mean, I get it, there's a whole Breakfast Club vibe... which label are you going to get... the Brain, the Athlete, the Princess, the Basketcase, the Criminal. Do you want to be social in a large group or a small group? This matters so much more to girls at this age and it's really all in the roll of the dice where they land.

I try to model being a positive nerd. When I developed the game unit, I became an amateur designer and I went through the same process I was asking my students to go through. This way I understood their struggles first hand and could troubleshoot what they were going through. I took a mentor game, Dragon Slayer, and I made some changes to it, but I used the basic mechanics of the competitive, press-your-luck game. I wrote a story, designed components, developed a directions booklet, and even created a presentation to try to sell the game. I fail to look at myself as a designer, because it wasn't purely original, but at the same time it is a really unique game. I did, though, create a game that I made myself and I'm proud of it! (My husband only gave tips, so he doesn't get the credit. Ha!)

My modeling doesn't go unnoticed, though. I had the pleasure of listening to a couple of my game club girls talking about making a game similar to Betrayal at House on the Hill. They started working out how they would change this or that and how they would implement this kind of strategy or variable player power. I was legitimately excited about what they were coming up with. I threw in my own two-cents. It did my heart proud and I have hope for what these girls will go on to do. They’re my 8th graders who have been with me all three years of Middle School. I know they know their futures are bright.

On the other hand, I have students who make amazing games, but then never want to take them further. I am a limited person and can only get them so far with their games, but I want them to keep their passion going. I want them to be proud of what they've done.

To some of these girls maybe it's just about getting that A in class. I wish, though, that they saw in themselves the smart, talented and inventive creators I see in them. I know when they leave my class those aspects of them will be broken down by everything and everybody that believes girls have no place in that realm. I try to make them see through that lie before it's too late. I can only hope I get through to some of them.

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